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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights considers the report of Bulgaria

GENEVA (22 February 2019) - The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today concluded its review of the sixth periodic report of Bulgaria on its efforts to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Introducing the report, Yuri Sterk, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, said that the Ministry of Justice had made substantial efforts to raise awareness of the Covenant and the justiciability of the rights enshrined therein among judges at all levels, lawyers and other public officials. The provisions of the Covenant had been applied in a number of court cases relating to labour remuneration, housing, and the use of real estate by physical persons. With the adoption of the Programme for Governance 2017-2021, the Government had proved its commitment to effective child and family support, to ensuring equal access to quality social services and deinstitutionalization of child care, to guaranteeing the rights of persons with disabilities, to reforming the education system and preventing school dropouts, (thus also fighting child poverty), to eliminating illiteracy and enhancing the quality of education, and to increasing income through employment and improving labour productivity.

In the ensuing discussion, the Committee Experts inquired about the State party’s national strategy to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and about how it ensured that it reached the indicators of compliance with those goals. They also wondered how the State party met the needs of vulnerable populations, such as Roma and persons with disabilities, and why it had not ratified the Istanbul Convention. The Experts further inquired about the effectiveness of the country’s anti-corruption efforts, results of the social integration of Roma, segregation of Roma children at school, availability of education in the mother tongue, poverty reduction efforts, difference between “ethnic groups” and “national minorities,” protection and integration of minorities, the unemployment rate of various vulnerable groups, gender inequality, provision of social services, housing conditions for asylum seekers and refugees, the effect of forced evictions on vulnerable populations and especially on Roma, harm reduction programmes, mental health, and school dropout rates.

In his concluding remarks, Aslan Abashidze, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Bulgaria, appreciated the delegation’s detailed answers and commended the State party’s efforts in submitting regular periodic reviews.

On his part, Mr. Sterk reassured the Committee Experts that respect for and the promotion of universal fundamental freedoms remained a priority for the Bulgarian Government. The dialogue would be a useful guidance for the Government in the implementation of the Covenant rights.

Committee Chairperson Renato Zerbini Ribeiro Leão thanked the delegation for a very open, frank and constructive dialogue, and assured it that the Committee shared the same goals as the State party in terms of human rights.

The delegation of Bulgaria consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education, and the Permanent Mission of Bulgaria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public on Monday, 25 February, at 10 a.m. to hold a meeting with civil society representatives from Mauritius and Kazakhstan, whose reports it will review next week.

Report

The sixth periodic report of Bulgaria can be read here: E/C.12/BGR/6.

Presentation of the Report

YURI STERK, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, outlined the most significant developments within Bulgaria’s human rights institutional and policy framework since its previous review in 2012. In 2013, the Council of Ministers had decided to establish a National Coordination Mechanism on Human Rights in order to improve coordination among public authorities involved in the implementation of Bulgaria’s international obligations and commitments in the field of human rights. In 2017, the Ombudsperson had initiated a procedure for obtaining accreditation with status A under the Paris Principles. Further steps had been taken with a view to strengthen engagement with the human rights system and civil society organizations, and to increase transparency of the appointment and the selection process. To comply with the Committee’s recommendations, the authorities would have to adopt legislative amendments to the Ombudsman Act so that the mandate of the Ombudsperson could involve both the promotion and protection of human rights. During its presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2018, Bulgaria had focused on the rights of the child, gender equality and women’s empowerment, and on ensuring equal rights for persons with disabilities.

The Ministry of Justice had made substantial efforts to raise awareness of the Covenant and the justiciability of the rights enshrined therein among judges at all levels, lawyers and other public officials. The provisions of the Covenant had been applied in a number of court cases relating to labour remuneration, housing, and the use of real estate by physical persons. The competent ministries and agencies in Bulgaria had studied the Committee’s statement of 8 October 2018 on climate change and the Covenant. Following its accession to the European Union, Bulgaria had aligned with the existing and newly adopted legislation in that field. The Third National Plan on Climate Change 2012-2020 provided specific measures for the reduction of green house emissions in the sectors of energy, households, services, industry, waste, agriculture, forestry, transport, education and science. The Government strove to ensure compliance with its commitment of 20 per cent emission reduction in comparison with 1990 levels.

Mr. Sterk underlined that all relevant authorities and institutions dealing with human rights had actively participated in the drafting of the sixth periodic report, which demonstrated the importance that the Government attached to the role of civil society in that process. With the adoption of the Programme for Governance 2017-2021, the Government had proved its commitment to effective child and family support, to ensuring equal access to quality social services and deinstitutionalization of child care, to guaranteeing the rights of persons with disabilities, to reforming the education system and preventing school dropouts, (thus also fighting child poverty), to eliminating illiteracy and enhancing the quality of education, and to increasing income through employment and improving labour productivity. Policy areas, such as addressing the negative demographic trend by encouraging an increase in the birth rate, reducing youth emigration, improving the overall health status of the nation, and increasing the growth and competitiveness of the Bulgarian economy were also among the priorities. The Government was dedicated to consistently pursue the implementation of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Development.

Questions by the Country Rapporteur

ASLAN ABASHIDZE, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Bulgaria, inquired whether the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union was applied directly in Bulgaria. How were the provisions of the Charter applied vis-à-vis Covenant provisions?

Was there a national strategy for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals? How did the State party ensure that it reached the indicators of compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals? What funding was available to that end? When would Bulgaria submit its voluntary report on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals?

Were there new action plans to counter corruption? How effective were the Government’s anti-corruption efforts?

What strategy did the State party apply to ensure that the needs of vulnerable populations, such as Roma and persons with disabilities, were met? How was data collected in that respect? How did Bulgaria ensure that Roma children were not segregated in schools?

What efforts had Bulgaria made to overcome the difference in the living standards between cities and the countryside, and particularly when people lived in ethnic settlements? What were the tangible results of the Roma Integration Strategy?

Turning to the two national human rights institutions (the Office of the Ombudsperson and the National Commission for Human Rights), Mr. Abashidze noted the low staffing of the Commission and the low salaries. In addition, the Commission only held status B under the Paris Principles.

What was the State party doing to overcome the problem of domestic violence? Why had Bulgaria not ratified the Istanbul Convention?

Replies by the Delegation

YURI STERK, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, reiterated that national courts applied the Covenant provisions. The provisions of the fundamental treaties of the European Union had precedence over national laws. Until now, the Bulgarian Government had not experienced any collision in the application of the fundamental treaties of the European Union and United Nations’ instruments. The rule of the thumb was meeting the best interest of citizens.

As for meeting the indicators of compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals, the delegation explained that all Bulgarian institutions were required to submit indicators on meeting relevant European parameters quarterly and annually. Some 100 indicators applied to all European Union Member States, and they also coincided with the indicators on the Sustainable Development Goals.

The delegation stressed that meeting the needs of persons with disabilities was one of the Government’s priorities. The authorities worked to cross-reference relevant data on persons with disabilities with various agencies and ministries, such as the National Employment Agency, the Ministry of Health, and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. The Government had adopted a new law on the rights of persons with disabilities in 2018, aimed at enhancing their social integration and services provided for them, such as medical examination, access to employment, and deinstitutionalization of care.

Answering the Experts’ questions about the social integration of Roma, the delegation explained that the real challenge had to do with poverty reduction and reduction of ghettoization. Accordingly, the authorities had introduced measures for social housing, employment, education, healthcare and social services. More than 50 per cent of Roma people were unemployed in the long term, but the authorities were starting to reduce that percentage little by little by investing in the education of Roma children.

Each year the public budget for education was increasing by 10 per cent, and teachers’ salaries were also on the rise. In 2018, some 17,000 children were brought to school in an effort to ensure that each child attended school. Inclusive education was a priority for the Government of Bulgaria. In 2019, 3.6 per cent of the gross national product was dedicated to education. Since 2015, the network of some 230 health mediators had been working to ensure that Roma communities received an adequate standard of healthcare, especially in the area of maternal health.

YURI STERK, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, assured the Committee members that Bulgaria would submit its voluntary report on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The delegation said that Bulgaria had an action plan for the implementation of the National Strategy for Poverty Reduction and Promotion of Social Inclusion 2020. One of the goals of the Government was to increase the minimum wage, which stood at 40 per cent of the average income. Another priority was supporting elderly persons, especially in rural areas, and increasing old-age pensions. Subsidies were provided for medical treatment, as well as meals for those in need.

The delegation emphasized that the fight against corruption was a priority for the Government. In January 2018, Bulgaria had adopted a comprehensive anti-corruption legislative framework. The new anti-corruption agency was fully operational, and it was capable of prosecuting high-level corruption. The European Commission had commended Bulgaria for its progress in areas of justice and transparency.

The National Commission for Human Rights was a quasi-judicial body that responded to complaints of discrimination. It consisted of nine members, out of which five were elected and four appointed by the President. It also had 25 regional representatives. The Commission’s budget in 20017 stood at 2.5 million Bulgarian leva. It was true that the Commission received fewer complaints than the Office of the Ombudsperson due to its narrower mandate.

YURI STERK, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, explained that the Constitutional Court had ruled that the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention) was at odds with the national Constitution, which was why Bulgaria would not ratify it. Nevertheless, the Government would include certain important elements of the Convention in national legislation in order to deal with domestic violence.

Follow-up Questions by the Committee Members

What was the value of reviews in the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights? How did Bulgarian courts refer to the Covenant provisions? What kind of language did they use? What were the main challenges that the State party faced in terms of discrimination?

Had the State party considered ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Covenant and what were the discussions in that respect?

Which groups fell under the category of “national minorities” and “ethic groups”? How did that distinction impact access to rights? Were school textbooks in the mother tongue available for ethnic minorities?

Referring to the Committee’s statement on public debts, austerity measures and the Covenant rights, which was adopted in 2016, an Expert asked what Bulgaria was doing to ensure that the Covenant rights were respected when adopting macroeconomic plans required by the European Union?

Second Round of Questions by the Committee Experts

The Experts reminded that despite the claim of the State party that unemployment was decreasing, data showed that youth unemployment stood at 12.9 per cent and Roma unemployment stood at 86 per cent. What was the Government doing to solve that problem?

What was the employment rate of persons with disabilities? What measures were in place to ensure that employers complied with the quota for the employment of persons with disabilities?

The Experts also noted that long-term unemployment was increasing and that more than 55 per cent were women. What was the current strategy to help people find employment?

There was discrimination against women in employment due to gender stereotypes, and regulations surrounding maternity and paternity leave. How many fathers took paternity leave? Why was maternity/paternity leave paid by only 90 per cent of the average daily wage?

There was widespread sexual harassment at the workplace, especially in the garment sector, as well as low awareness and reporting about this. What measures did the Government plan to take in that regard?

In terms of working conditions, the Committee welcomed the fact that the minimum wage was increasing each year. However, it was the lowest among European Union Member States (235.2 euros) and far from a living wage.

It was noted that civil servants were still prohibited from taking part in strikes.

With respect to the provision of social services, the Experts observed a lack of administrative capacity and poor training of social workers who were supposed to evaluate the individual situation of persons with disabilities, for example.

Replies by the Delegation

YURI STERK, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, said that the reviews in the Committee were exercises which allowed the Government and civil society to evaluate the state of play and to mobilize resources to do better. The reviews completed and enhanced the perspective of what the Government was doing anyway. Bulgaria would like to accede to the Optional Protocol to the Covenant when it had all the relevant mechanisms in place.

The delegation reminded that the provisions of the Covenant had been applied in a number of court decisions in Bulgaria. Those decisions contained references of general nature to the Covenant. It was possible that some court decisions also contained reference to specific articles of the Covenant. Lawyers and judges were well acquainted with the contents of the Covenant.

There were several guiding principles for the equal treatment of ethnic and linguistic minorities. The equal treatment of minorities meant that they were treated as Bulgarian citizens. The authorities had adopted special measures to help less integrated minorities. The Constitution enshrined the right of all persons belonging to ethnic minorities to study in their mother tongue. They could study their mother tongue language as an elective subject.

Referring to the question about the administrative capacity of social workers, the delegation stated that the Social Assistance Act was expected to enter into force in 2020. It aimed at increasing salaries of social workers and their capacities. Less than 10 per cent of the labour force in Bulgaria earned the minimum wage, which corresponded to the national GDP growth rate and was above the official poverty threshold (348 Bulgarian leva).

The amended Civil Servants Act allowed all civil servants the effective right to strike. However, the senior managers of the administration (a limited number of persons) did not enjoy that right in order to ensure the continuity of public services and protect the public interest.

Third Round of Questions by the Committee Experts

RENATO ZERBINI RIBEIRO LEÃO, Committee Chairperson, highlighted that 43.7 per cent of children in Bulgaria lived in poverty and social exclusion in 2015, whereas 23.4 per cent of the population lived under the poverty line in 2017. What had been the results of the National Strategy for the Reduction of Poverty 2020?

The Chairperson also remarked that electricity and water costs were very high in the country. What percentage of the national budget was dedicated to healthcare and mental health?

Mr. Ribeiro Leão also inquired about the legal basis for forced evictions, and how it affected disadvantaged groups, such as Roma and other minorities.

An Expert drew attention to the reduction of harm reduction programmes and HIV/AIDS treatment at the end of 2017. How did the Government plan to increase the number of those programmes? Did it intend to decriminalize drug use to avoid the marginalization of drug users?

What were the conditions in which asylum seekers and refugees in Bulgaria were housed? There were reports of gender-based violence and crowding.

Did the State party have any campaigns against genetically modified food?


Replies by the Delegation

YURI STERK, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, clarified that the basic constitutional concept in Bulgaria on the protection of ethnic minorities was based on a more traditional approach to protect the rights of individual persons without any discrimination. All citizens were equal under the law.

The delegation added that the protection of ethnic minorities was guaranteed by the Constitution. In the past 25 years, Bulgaria had followed a successful model of multi-ethnic coexistence and pluralism. Ethnic identity was a matter of free personal choice for any individual. Self-identification was an indispensable, yet subjective criterion. There were possibilities for studying in the mother tongue of minorities at specialized secondary schools.

The ceiling for the old-age pension equalled 35 per cent of the maximum insurable amount income in the country, but it would be increased to 40 per cent. Its goal was to ensure the minimum pension. The first pillar was financed by social security contributions and it was based on the principle of solidarity. The second pillar was based on personal contributions.

In 2018, the unemployment rate in Bulgaria stood at 5.2 per cent. The challenges in the labour market concerned shortages in skilled people. The employment rate of Roma was lower than that of the rest of the population, but it was due to lower skills rather than their ethnic background, the delegation explained. Accordingly, vocational training was targeting Roma with lower education. Some 79 Roma mediators were active locally to help Roma find employment.

The delegation added that a 13 per-cent decrease had been recorded in the unemployment rate of persons with disabilities. In 2018, about 7,000 persons with disabilities had been included in different employment programmes and vocational training. There were legal provisions on employment quotas, taxation incentives and penalties to motivate employers to hire persons with disabilities.

Long-term unemployment in 2018 had decreased almost 6 per cent compared with 2017. Some 52,000 long-term unemployed persons had signed the so-called job integration agreement. As for women’s participation in the labour market, the gender employment gap stood at only 8 per cent while the European Union average was 11.5 per cent. In addition, the share of women’s long-term unemployment was lower than men.

Bulgaria had one of the longest maternity leave periods in the European Union, amounting to 410 days. The salary received during the maternity leave was not subject to taxation.

Bulgaria was committed to creating an accessible architectural environment in urban areas for all persons. The country’s new housing policy, which covered the period until 2030, aimed at addressing poor maintenance, low energy efficiency, and the large deficient of social housing. A project carried out between 2012 and 2015 assessed opportunities for energy saving and re-building of buildings with low energy efficiency.

Turning to the deinstitutionalization of child care, the delegation said that 90 per cent of the institutions had been closed since 2010. At the moment there were about 600 children still in institutional care. The delegation also reminded that in 2018 the Government had increased minimum income schemes for social services. Every year, 35,000 children received special social assistance for starting school. The Government had also established centres to work with street children.

Answering the Experts’ questions about forced evictions, the delegation clarified that when certain families did not respect legal provisions about the construction of homes, municipalities had the responsibility to offer them alternative accommodation, usually in social housing or shelters. Out of 5,911 orders for the removal of illegal housing units, around 300 were related to buildings occupied by Roma.

Any kind of relocation of families from illegally constructed housing units or substandard housing units was carried out in due respect of the law and of the family’s situation, stressed YURI STERK, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria.

The whole budget of Bulgarian healthcare stood at 4.7 billion Bulgarian leva in 2018, whereas in 2019 it would stand at 5.6 billion Bulgarian leva. Psychiatric care and treatment were based on the principle of the integration of patients in the community. Improvements in salaries of mental health staff and renovation of the three major psychiatric hospitals in the country had been undertaken in order to enhance the patient environment. Bulgaria was committed to closing down all its institutions for persons with dementia and mental disabilities by 2035.

Drug use was not criminalized in Bulgaria. There were currently 30 opioid treatment programmes, and eight needle/syringe programmes in operation. Those treatment programmes were also available for drug addicts in prisons.

With respect to accommodation conditions for asylum seekers and refugees, the delegation reminded that the national law on refugees and immigrants had been fully aligned with the European Union’s regulations. Bulgaria fully complied with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and it had in place the National Strategy on Migration, Asylum and Integration 2011-2020. The authorities applied screening in order to identify unaccompanied minors, who were provided with full access to the educational system.

Follow-up Questions by the Committee Members

An Expert observed that the delegation tended to present information by breaking it along ethnic lines, which indicated that there was a lack of integration effort.

Another Expert drew attention to the high degree of inequalities in the country, reminding that Bulgaria’s Gini index was the highest in the European Union.

Was it the norm in Bulgaria that mothers went back to work after giving birth? Could the delegation provide a percentage of fathers taking paternity leave?

Replies by the Delegation

YURI STERK, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, clarified that Bulgaria did not collect data on ethnic, religious and linguistic background, unless it was for the purpose of census, during which individuals could voluntarily self-identify. Pursuing ethnic identification in order to create divisions in society was not at all what Bulgaria aimed for. On the contrary, it was a unitary State. But the fact remained that certain groups lived in compact communities as a matter of choice.

The delegation stated that the authorities had adopted special measures to promote the integration of minorities, inter alia through the work of the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues.

Replying to Experts’ questions about the high degree of inequalities, the delegation noted that Bulgaria aimed to achieve economic convergence within the European Union and it was in the process of developing its 2030 national poverty reduction strategy. Its approach to reduce poverty was closely linked with improvements in education.

Traditionally, women in Bulgaria worked, and their participation in science, technology and engineering was the second highest in the European Union. The authorities strove to come up with additional incentives for parents caring for their children to go back to work, as well as to motivate more fathers to take paternity leave.

Fourth Round of Questions by the Committee Members

It appeared that there were still some school enrolment costs that hindered access to education for families with lower incomes, an Expert observed. Recently, there had been an 8 per-cent drop in the number of children who had access to primary education. What measures had the State party taken to manage that drop and reverse the trend?

What were the expected results of the strategy to deal with school dropout? Did the State party intend to take any measures to fight the negative views vis-à-vis lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students?

Some European institutions had reported on de facto segregation of Roma children at certain schools. How did the country plan to deal with that problem? What measures was the State party planning to improve access to education for children with disabilities?

How was the diversity of contributions to the historical and cultural heritage of Bulgaria reflected (for example the contribution of the Turkish and Jewish minorities)?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said that many reasons explained the number of children out of school, such as early marriages, parents who travelled and worked abroad, and the socio-economic status of families. Bulgaria had established a coordination mechanism to bring children back to school. Social workers visited families to inquire about the reasons behind their children’s absence from school and to provide assistance if necessary.

There were no segregated schools in Bulgaria. But it was true that there were some more compact Roma communities where Roma were the majority of students in schools.

The Ministry of Culture had a number of programmes to support tangible and intangible cultural contributions to the historical and cultural heritage of Bulgaria. For example, the Vidin municipality had committed to restore its synagogue.

DEYANA KOSTADINOVA, Permanent Representative of Bulgaria to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that bullying at schools was a big problem in Bulgaria. The authorities had a long tradition of fighting against that phenomenon, in cooperation with civil society organizations. A new project in cooperation with UNICEF had been launched recently to address the increase in bullying at schools.

YURI STERK, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, noted that during its presidency of the Council of the European Union, Bulgaria had focused on the equality of men and women in the digital world.

Follow-up Questions by the Committee Experts

An Expert inquired about provisions for the sustainable social care for patients with dementia and Alzheimer, whereas another Expert asked when human rights education was introduced at school.

Had there been an attempt to integrate students of different minority communities in a single school?

Replies by the Delegation

In 2014, Bulgaria had adopted its national strategy for long-term care, which aimed at hiring new personnel and training them, and planning new specialized services. Part of the strategy was closing down institutions for dementia and Alzheimer patients and placing them in home-based care.

Students were not divided in any way. The leading criterion was the proximity of schools to students’ place of residence. Inclusive education was a priority educational policy, the delegation stressed. Human rights education was provided to future magistrates and law enforcement officers.

Concluding Remarks

ASLAN ABASHIDZE, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Bulgaria, appreciated the delegation’s detailed answers and commended the State party’s efforts in submitting regular periodic reviews, which attested to its willingness to implement economic, social and cultural rights.

YURI STERK, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, reassured the Committee Experts that respect for and promotion of universal fundamental freedoms remained a priority for the Bulgarian Government. The dialogue would be a useful guidance for the Government in the implementation of Covenant rights.

RENATO ZERBINI RIBEIRO LEÃO, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for a very open, frank and constructive dialogue. He assured the delegation that the Committee shared the same goals as the State party in terms of human rights.

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